Under a Bad Sign: Criminal Self-Representation in African American Popular Culture

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Under a Bad Sign: Criminal Self-Representation in African American Popular Culture. Jonathan Munby. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 216 pp. $65.00 cloth, $22.50 paper.

The controversy over black criminal self-representation in American popular media has vexed critics of all races for the better part of a century. What is to be made of the fact that, beginning in the 1920s, African Americans have been complicit in, and often auteurs of, cinematic and literary treatments of a black lower class culture suffused with violence, drug use, misogyny and avarice? No other group on the American margins has participated in what to the casual eye appears to be acts of willful selfdegradation. Jonathan Munby's Under a Bad Sign: Criminal SelfRepresentation in African American Popular Culture sets out to untangle this apparent paradox for a scholarly audience, offering a nuanced account of how an intergenerational array of avowed "race men," including filmmakers Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, Rudy Ray Moore, and John Singleton and novelists Chester Himes, Julian Mayfield and Donald Goines have used the "black badman" as a powerful weapon in a long twilight struggle against a white cultural imperialism that aimed to hegemonize African American identity. Criminal self-representation, Munby argues, allows black cultural producers to reclaim definitional control over their lives, resist white assaults on their masculinity, and tell their own stories in their own way.

But what are those stories, and which are authentic and true? At the height of the "blaxploitation" film movement of the 1970s, NAACP leader Junius Griffin savaged the drugs-and-mayhem epic "Super Fly" as "an insidious film which portrays the black community at its worst" (129). More recently, the white critic Nick Tosches described "gangsta" rappers as "theatrical coon acts" (175). As African American writers and directors have acquired more control over the content of the films in which African Americans are portrayed, they have borne more responsibility for what has appeared on the screen. Oscar Micheaux, who struggled between the 1920s and 1940s to finance his black-themed films on a shoestring, labored under far more rigid constraints than the "hood" directors of the 1990s and early 21st century, with their major studio sponsorship, generous budgets and unprecedented degree of artistic autonomy. As a consequence, black artists who take as their genre the gangsta or "thug" life and its accompanying culture and values expose themselves to charges of opportunism and even of race treason.

Munby seeks to explain why criminal self-representation has been so prominent in African American film, literature and music during the 20th century. He mediates between the poles of what might be labeled the "middle-class uplift" position of appalled critics who view gangsta culture as a badge of racial servitude, and those observers who contend that depicting the "real" conditions of lower-class African American urban life exposes racial injustice and might even offer "revolutionary" inspiration. …


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